There are times when I think the best part of stepping into a new year is not making resolutions about where you are going but reflecting on where you have been. In 2014, one of the most enjoyable and personally meaningful things I did was read. So I thought I’d share my favorite books from the year here. I hope you find at least a few interesting book recommendations on this list that will entertain and enlighten you in 2015!
MY FAVORITE BOOK OF 2014
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig
I know, I know I’m several decades late to jumping on the ZAMM bandwagon. And I know I’m probably the millionth person to say, “Have you read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? It’s amazing!” But it is a testament to the book’s status as a cultural icon that 40 years after its publication it still draws new fans with its compelling storytelling and an even more compelling approach to philosophy. The central narrative of the book is a motorcycle trip across the United States interspersed with mysterious flashbacks and rambles into questions about knowing, meaning, and reason. Among other things, Pirsig wonders if there is anything beyond the objective world we see and the subjective world of our mind. And if there is something else, what is it? I found this book while I was asking similar questions and it was a great catalyst for my own thinking. Though the paths Pirsig and I took may not have been the same or led to the same end, I’m deeply grateful for his guidebook to the “high country of the mind.” It would be easy to keep writing about this book and the ways it influenced my thinking over the last year but I’ll end here by simply saying that I’d encourage you to read it.
10 OTHER GREAT READS
A Beautiful Anarchy, by David duChemin
This is a powerful manifesto on art and creativity from my favorite photography author. There are no photos in this book, just page after page of reminders to go out there and create. As duChemin puts it, “The magic rarely happens within our comfort zone, but outside it, on the ragged scary edge, where we have to fight like hell to keep from drowning in the unknown. This is where most of us create our best stuff…” If you’re feeling stuck in your creative work, this book can help.
The Call, by Os Guinness
One of the questions I often ponder is the question of what I should do with my life. How do I find the right thing to do? What kind of a life is meaningful? Like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, The Call is a book that came into my life with uncanny timing. In fact, I found it’s division of life’s calling into corporate calling (the things we all should do) and personal calling (the individual path each person follows) so close to my own thinking that I approached it cautiously, not wanting to get caught up only in what I wanted to hear. For a person who is seeking direction in their life, especially for those who believe direction comes from God, The Call is a helpful guide.
Capital in the Twenty-First Century, by Thomas Piketty
As far as 700 page texts on economics go (25 hours if you listen to the audiobook), I can think of few more accessible or engrossing than Piketty’s. His survey of inequality in the western world over the last few centuries is thorough and eye-opening. I’m not totally convinced when it comes to all of the conclusions and recommendation in this book, but it is hard to deny the importance and depth of this work. It caused me to stop and seriously consider many of the opinions I take for granted regarding where money comes from, taxation, power, wealth, and economic systems.
Colonel Roosevelt, by Edmund Morris
This final installment is a fitting end to Morris’s epic Theodore Roosevelt trilogy. There are few historical figures I find as fascinating as the 26th President and this book captures him in vivid detail. It’s full of snapping white teeth, bellowing speeches, feats of manly courage, confounding contradictions, and abounding passion for life. Morris has written what may be the definitive biography on T.R. Despite his flaws and despite the three years it took me to read this series, I find Roosevelt immensely inspirational and almost superhuman. I strongly recommend this entire trilogy, especially the first book The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.
The Colors of Hope, by Richard Dahlstrom
I’ve found my thoughts returning often to this book’s exhortation to love now and sow the seeds of compassion, grace, and hope — not to wait for a chance to do heroic good that may never come. Dahlstrom says, “We need to be weaned away from our addiction to the spectacular and realize instead that simply showing up, day after day, and creating splashes of beauty and grace will eventually bring fruit.” I think there’s a lot to be said for people who faithfully show love to others instead of just waiting for miracles, and I’m thankful for this encouragement to become one of them.
Detroit: American Autopsy, by Charlie LeDuff
Come for the spectacle, stay for the humanity. Charlie LeDuff is crazy, but he’s also the smoking, swearing, drinking, and occasionally gun-toting gonzo journalist his city needs. While keeping my jaw dropped and my eyes transfixed with stories of the car wreck that is Detroit, he manages to convey a deeply personal story. LeDuff is willing to go to ridiculous and often dangerous lengths to help expose the corruption and ineptitude that brought his city to its knees. With a blend of rage and compassion he asks how it became so broken and what can be done to help the people who are still there.
Enough, by Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman
Why do people go hungry in a world with such abundance? I’ve had a vague picture of the culprits behind global hunger but Enough clearly outlined the roots of the problem. The authors are careful to show the complexity of famine and malnutrition. Demonstrating that there isn’t one single factor, like ethanol or wasteful farm bills, to blame hunger on. It is clear that although solutions are often complex, they do exist and there are tangible ways forward. The book is also a haunting reminder that without awareness, seemingly innocent actions can have disastrous results. As one politician put it after he learned legislation he signed caused thousands to suffer, “Isn’t it amazing how a man can screw up things so badly for reasons they can’t even explain?”
Orthodoxy, by G.K. Chesterton
I’m in the habit of saving quotes I like, and there is perhaps no one who appears so often in those saved quotes as G.K. Chesterton — even though I only became aquatinted with his writing this last year. Pithy, insightful, and fun, this exploration of life and faith is easy to read but hard to forget. His embrace of paradox and advocacy for a passionate life pulled me along through the pages and lodged his words in my skull long after I had set the book down. To quote one of my favorite passages, “I maintain, it is the rational optimist who fails, the irrational optimist who succeeds. He is ready to smash the whole universe for the sake of itself.”
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, by John le Carré
The twists and turns of this beloved spy novel are exciting but it is the book’s characters that make it memorable. I think what I found so enjoyable about le Carré’s work is that it is, in some ways, an antithesis of what I’d come to expect from this genre. Instead of a dashing James Bond character at the center of the story, we are left with George Smiley. He is aging, pudgy, can’t keep his wife from straying, and is seemingly absent-minded, not the type of spy who runs across the top of trains or gets into gun battles. But, as any good storyteller knows, showing your character’s flaws and weakness only makes them more interesting and their victories more exciting.
In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote
My editor used to tell me that this was one of the best books ever written. He even loaned me his personal copy of the book, but I never found the time to read it. After finally getting around to taking his recommendation, I have to admit that I can’t think of another book that is more gripping. It is the godfather of true-crime novels and, once it gets rolling, it doesn’t let you go. You are along for the ride as your relationship with the story’s central characters, two murderers, moves from horror to pity and back over and over again. Capote has a knack for creating intimacy between the reader and his portrayals of these dangerous men. The book is so engrossing that sometimes you feel like you are mere inches away from the face of evil.
ONE SENTENCE REVIEWS OF THE OTHER BOOKS I READ IN 2014
A Skeptic’s Guide to Faith/Rumors of Another World, by Philip Yancey
It’s a slightly disjointed but interesting exploration of the mysteries of faith.
As We Forgive, by Catherine Claire Larson
Gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, tear-jerking stories of one of the worst genocides of our generation and the improbable forgiveness that followed it.
Bagombo Snuff Box, by Kurt Vonnegut
There is little to dislike about these bitesized chunks of Vonnegut’s prose.
Eichmann in Jerusalem, by Hannah Arendt
There are few books that make a boring man following orders as terrifying as Arendt makes Eichmann while she argues that evil doesn’t always look monstrous, sometimes it looks like a man behind a desk.
Eight World Cups, by George Vecsey
The author entertains as he expounds on his passion and shows that soccer is crazy, soccer is corrupt, soccer is beautiful, and soccer is life.
Give Smart, by Thomas Tierney and Joel Fleishman
Essential reading for anyone working or giving in the nonprofit sector.
The Honorable Schoolboy, by John le Carré
Smiley and the gang are back for another adventure that has all the interpersonal charm and drama of Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy even though I thought the larger plot had flaws.
The Last Hunger Season, by Roger Thurow
A encouraging demonstration of what the end of hunger looks like in one African community.
Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius
Aurelius seems to have an endless supply of get-your-but-off-the-couch-and-live-your-short-life motivation to dish out and often that is just the thing I need.
The Men Who Stare at Goats, by Jon Ronson
Hippies, Jedi warriors, and the CIA fill page after page of this nearly unbelievable true story that will have you questioning the sanity of the top brass of America’s most secret military units.
02, by Richard Dahlstrom
I appreciated this encouragement and reminder that life is about both breathing in and breathing out.
The Psychopath Test, by Jon Ronson
If you ever wanted to be terrified that everyone around you might be lying or that you might be a little crazy yourself, this is the book for you.
The Seeking Heart, by Fenelon
Spiritual wisdom that is as relevant today as it was 300 years ago.
Through Painted Deserts, by Donald Miller
I enjoyed following Miller’s search for meaning as he putters through the West in a VW van.
What the Dog Saw, by Malcolm Gladwell
I think Gladwell is best in small doses like these fun and thought-provoking articles.